Morun to Uran Togoo Volcanic Area, Ankle Bone Games, And Why Mongolian Women Have Such Elaborate Hairdos, Mongolia
A group of four Austrian men who were sitting at a table next to us, asked with envy if we could please communicate with the waitress and order for them a large salad also.
They admitted that they had eaten nothing but meat during their whole trip so far, and said that they were heading towards Huvsgol Lake, the direction from which we had come.
They asked us for tips about what to see, and seemed happy to hear that they would be able to eat some smoked fish in Hatgal on Huvsgol Lake, which would be a nice change from what they’ve been eating.
We chatted with them and offered advice about how to travel with more nonchalance and acceptance around Mongolia, since they seemed very distraught that our hotel again had no power and no water this morning.
They nodded with agreement, and said that they did not mind skipping their morning shower, just that not being able to flush the toilets makes for a smelly and unpleasant visit to the bathroom. We wished each other, “Happy travels!,” as we got ready to get on the road again.
From Morun we drove to Uran Togoo, a distance of about 300 km.
The road meandered through some mountain passes and valleys crisscrossed with rivers.
At one point we stopped to take some photographs of the landscape, when a motorcycle carrying three people stopped near us.
A couple had been giving a ride on their motorcycle to a tall young man dressed in a traditional del.
They had stopped to ask us if we would be able to give the man a ride in our car until they climbed the mountain pass a short distance ahead.
They did not think that their motorcycle would be able to climb the pass with three adults on it.
We happily obliged and made some room for him in our car.
He told us that he was a policeman, earning very little since he had just started and had no seniority.
His family were nomads who used to come to Lake Huvsgol every summer with their herds, who fed on the lush green pastures in that area.
He said that in the past few years, they had not traveled to Huvsgol, choosing instead to stay farther south, since the lakeside pasture was not so good.
This year, he took his vacation from work and hitchhiked back to Huvsgol area, to see if the pasture had improved.
We asked if the pasture looked better this year and if he will bring his parents and family to graze their animals there again as they had been doing for many years, and he said that yes, he was pleased with the grass, and as soon as he returns home, they will pack and move north.
At the top of the pass, we stopped to take photos, and the couple who gave him a ride caught up with us, and he climbed again onto their loaded motorcycle for the rest of his journey.
We came upon a very wide river which we were told that we would have to cross by a rustic and aging wooden ferry barge that could tow only one or two cars at a time.
Makeshift restaurants lined the road leading to the ferry.
Locals were dining on dumplings and soup, cooked on gas campfires, while sitting on plastic stools in the shade.
The ferry had recently been replaced by a pontoon bridge and after paying a small fee, we quickly rode over the shaky pontoon and continued on our way. We wondered what would become of all of the local restaurants, whose business was based on there being a delay to cross the river by ferry.
We stopped to have our picnic lunch close to “Yellow Lake,” a vast body of water with herds of sheep and goats drinking from its shores, next to a few ancient graves, marked by large circular stones with a large pile of stones in the middle.
We passed by many nomads’ Gers, and often the kids ran to our car, carrying plastic bottles filled with Airag, a yogurt made from fermented Mare’s milk.
Tuya told us that the Airag is especially good in this region, and is well known all over Mongolia, because it has some of the best pasture land in all of the country.
I asked Nasaa to stop and offered to buy Airag from some of the kids.
I no longer eat any dairy products, but if it were especially good, I wanted Tuya and Nasaa to enjoy it.
We arrived at our ger camp in Uran Togoo.
It is hard to believe that this was a volcanic area, since everything looked so green and lush.
The volcano had erupted many thousands of years ago, and by now lush greenery had reclaimed the landscape.
We were again the only tourists in this ger camp.
We chatted with the owners, who were a couple from Ulaanbaatar.
They came here every summer to run this tourist ger camp, and the lady told us that it seemed that not many tourists were visiting the northern parts of Mongolia this year.
Maybe it was the World Cup, or maybe the global economy had not yet recovered enough…she had no answers.
Because not many tourists were around, the lady also cooked our meals for us.
She turned out to be an excellent cook, and made us some very delicious handmade noodles and salads.
Tuya had started meditating with us in our ger every evening before dinner and every morning upon awakening.
Even though she had never meditated before, from her first time sitting she had Spiritual visions of her Spirit soaring above the trees, seeing Tipis and balls of light.
That afternoon, she asked if we could teach her yoga.
We asked the lady and she gave us the keys to one of their wooden cabins shaped like a tipi, and Jules, Tuya and myself lined the floor with blankets and practiced yoga.
While we were practicing yoga, Nasaa shared the Airag that we had bought from the nomadic kids with the ger camp owner, and both of them sat and downed the bottle, feeling content.
We meditated before dinner, and after we had enjoyed the yummy food, we cleared the table, and Tuya taught us some Mongolian Ankle Bone games (called Shagai). These traditional games are played with the actual ankle bones of sheep or goats that had been slaughtered for food.
The ankle bones are also often used to tell a person’s fortune, as well as providing entertaining games for kids and adults alike.
Tuya told us that she had spent much of her childhood playing Shagai games with other kids.
Some of the games, like “Horse Racing” and “Camel Racing,” were very simple to play after we had mastered the tricky part of identifying which side of the ankle bone is a Camel, a Horse, a Goat or the Sheep.
Each player lines up his horse (an ankle bone of his choosing) at the starting line.
You then toss four bones on the table, and according to how the bones fall, you make your move.
If you toss a Horse, you advance your running horse one space (representing 1 Kilometer) along the race course.
If you toss two horses, you advance your running horse by two spaces, (representing 2 Kilometers) etc.
The one who gets to the finish line first is the winner.
Camel racing is exactly the same, except you race the camels, not the horses.
The “Ankle Bone Flicking Game” is much harder to explain and has many rules, so I won’t attempt to explain it here.
Suffice it to say that we laughed a lot and had a fabulous time playing these games.
Historically, the traditional Mongolian dress of tribal women included very elaborate headdresses and hairdos.
Nowadays, they are still sometime worn by women attending traditional weddings.
Two dark plaits are braided and woven into the hair and attached to a beautiful ornate head cap or hat.
The plaits are put into embroidered brocade covers inlaid with coral, turquoise and silver beads.
The cap or the hat, which looks like a crown, is made from silver and velvet with colorful ribbons attached at the back.
Tuya told us the story of how these elaborate hairdos, which resembles the wings of mythical birds, came into being.
“Many, many years ago, Mongolia was paradise on earth.
The pasture was so green that the animals were very healthy and provided plenty of food for the people.
The milk they produced was pure, and every kind of flower, vegetable and fruit grew in this land.
The people were happy, and the sun over Mongolia seemed to shine brighter, the trees were greener and healthier, and the weather seemed to continually be pleasant and nice.
The rulers of a neighboring country were envious of this Mongolian Paradise.
They wanted to conquer Mongolia, but seeing how numerous the people were and how strong and healthy they were, they plotted a way to reduce the numbers of people so they could invade and conquer this land of happiness and plenty.
They came up with a plan to have four messenger crows fly to the mythical “Crow Mountain.”
At this mountain lived very large crows who, it was said, ate human flesh.
The four messengers were to request that the mythical crows fly over to Mongolia, and eat as many humans as they can.
They figured that after the flesh eating crows had eaten many of the Mongolians, invading the land would be easy and victory would be assured.
On the way over to Crow Mountain, the four crow messengers sat on a rock in Mongolia and rested.
They chatted about how green everything was around them, how fertile was the land, and how soon, the magical large crows would feast on all the people around.
The crows started speculating about how many magical crows would be required to eat most of the humans.
One said that six big birds could do the job, while another said that only four would be needed.
Their raised voices caught the attention of a little bird, who silently sat and listened to the whole conversation.
After the messenger crows continued on their journey, the little bird flew over to a nearby Mongolian village, and told the people what she had heard.
The people of Mongolia took the story told by the little bird seriously, and gathered to discuss what could be done to prevent this massacre.
They collected the hair from all the women’s long braids, and created huge wing-like hairdos with glue, brocade and accessories braided with glistening silver and shiny beads.
They attached those hair pieces to each woman’s head.
When the man-eating crows flew over Mongolia, they saw those huge black winged hairdos and said to themselves: “This can not be Mongolia, this must be the land of the all-powerful Phoenix. Those black winged creatures will devour us in an instant, if we even attempt to attack.”
And so the frightened magical crows turned back and flew back home to Crow Mountain, leaving Mongolia unharmed.
The land was never molested again.”